(The Nature of Their Fatal Error)

Scripture Reading Leviticus 10:1-3


Some have suggested that God on occasion reacts much too harshly to what are often viewed by men as "little sins." Korah's rebellion (Numbers 16), in which a great many perished, and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) for just a "little white lie," are both examples of what are termed "excessive responses" to minor infractions. The death penalty was simply uncalled for, it is argued.

Did our God react too harshly? Was He out of line? Or, was there perhaps more taking place in these accounts than many realize? When one carefully examines these examples of God's "excessive responses" one will realize that there is complete justification for the way in which our Lord has dealt with these situations. To illustrate this, we will examine one of the chief examples from the Bible of what some have characterized as an over-reaction of God. I believe we will soon realize it was not.

It is the account of how God dealt with the sin of two men by the names of Nadab and Abihu. What did these individuals do to deserve instant death from the hands of God? And are there warnings and truths to be discerned which can be applied to the people of God today?


Before one can truly appreciate the nature of the sin of these two men, one needs to know something of their blessings and privileges. They were truly favored men, and the last of the sons of Israel that one would expect to be executed so suddenly by their God.

They were sons of Aaron (the first High Priest of Israel), and the nephews of Moses. They were also direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Thus, they were from a good lineage, and had the example of some great men in their lives.

They had an exalted status among the people. Exodus 24:11 lists them as being among the "nobles of the sons of Israel." Their names appear even before the Elders of Israel. Some have speculated they may well have been slated to be in line for the High Priesthood after their father Aaron.

In Exodus 24:1 God asks for them by name to come and commune with Him on Mt. Sinai. These two men were allowed to worship in the very presence of God Almighty! They were blessed with being able to eat and drink before Him, and they "saw the God of Israel" (Exodus 24:10). They beheld their God, and yet were allowed to live!

Few people could lay claim to such blessings! They were privileged and blessed and exalted above men in a great many respects. Certainly we would expect such men to be holy and devout and committed. God regarded them highly, thus we would naturally assume they would regard the Lord highly as well.


So, the events of Leviticus 10 come as quite a shock! How could God do this to these brothers upon whom He had bestowed such enormous blessings? And how could two men who had been so blessed by their God commit a sin so horrible that it would cause the Lord to strike them dead? And just what was this fatal error? On the surface it may seem like such a "little sin" to those who have read this account.

There has been much debate down through the centuries as to the exact nature of their sin. My feeling is that there is much more involved than a single, "little" sin. Indeed, their punishment was for several sins against their God. Thus, their error was multi-faceted.


There is ample evidence which suggests these two sons of Aaron entered the Holy of Holies to offer their incense. This they were not authorized to do. The Lord God had made it abundantly clear that only certain persons could come into the Holy of Holies, and they could only do so at certain times and for certain purposes.

That Nadab and Abihu had violated these clear commands of God is seen by strong implication in Leviticus 16:1-2.

"Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the Lord and died. And the Lord said to Moses, 'Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die!'"

This passage leaves little doubt that one aspect of the sin of these two brothers is that they had approached the presence of the Lord God in the Holy of Holies, something they had clearly been forbidden to do. In so doing, they had rejected God's will concerning who could enter, when they could enter, and for what purpose they could enter.

Perhaps they believed themselves to be on such a familiar basis with their God that they could just come and go before Him as they pleased. However, in so doing they had placed themselves above both God and the High Priest, and had usurped the authority of both! This God would not tolerate from anyone!


Further, these two sons of Aaron failed to show proper reverence for their God. They regarded Him as unholy and dishonored Him. This is clearly perceived in Leviticus 10:3, right after they were struck dead. Notice Moses' explanation of how he perceives this tragic event:

"Then Moses said to Aaron, "It is what the Lord spoke, saying, "By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be honored."' So Aaron, therefore, kept silent."

Aaron's sons had not shown proper reverence for the Lord God, and this was something God would not tolerate, especially from individuals who had been so greatly blessed and who were in a position to influence so many of the people of Israel.


In Leviticus 10:1 we are informed "They offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them." It is this which is typically regarded as constituting their fatal error. But, this was only a part of the overall problem which cost them their lives.

What exactly was this "strange fire" of which the text speaks? The answer is: it was fire (or more exactly: burning coals) not taken from the brazen altar, but rather taken from some other source.

When ceremonial worship was first instituted among the people of Israel, victims on the brazen altar were consumed by fire sent directly from heaven. This was holy fire; fire which came from the very presence of God Almighty. The people were commanded to keep this fire burning at all times.

The daily incense was to be burned in censers using only this particular fire. No other fire was to be used. Leviticus 16:12-13 says that Aaron (the High Priest) "shall take a firepan full of coals of fire from upon the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the ark of the testimony."

Nadab and Abihu presented an offering which only the High Priest was allowed to make, and they did so in a location where they were forbidden to enter. They also used coals of fire to make this offering that were taken from a source other than the one clearly specified by the Lord God. Saxe and Jensen (Studies in Leviticus) cite this as "no light offense," but rather "flagrant disobedience and presumption."

Perhaps they felt one source of fire was as good as another, or maybe they just didn't care. Either way, they were in direct violation of a specific command of God. He clearly specified the source of fire, and they chose another. Again, God could not tolerate this, and especially not from a pair of men as visible and influential as Nadab and Abihu.


The question that shouts out for an answer here, though, is: WHY?! These two men knew better! They were certainly not ignorant of God's will in these matters! So, why would they behave this way? Why would they display such flagrant disobedience and lack of reverence for the very God who had blessed them so greatly? The answer seems to be that they had their senses dulled and their judgment impaired by alcohol. In short --- THEY WERE DRUNK. Immediately after the bodies of Nadab and Abihu were dragged outside of the camp, the Lord God said to Aaron, their father:

"Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you may not die --- it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations --- and so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean." (Leviticus 10:9-10)

There is no question, upon examining the context, that the Lord is issuing this warning to Aaron with the sin of his sons in mind. They had failed to make a distinction between that which was holy and that which was profane ... between the clean and the unclean ... and the reason for their deadly behavior was that they were drunk! Aaron is commanded to make certain that such a thing never again occurs among those who are providing leadership to His people.

And is it not at least interesting that the same caution is given by the apostle Paul to those who would be spiritual leaders in the church?! Elders must not be addicted to wine (I Timothy 3:3; Titus 1:7). Impaired judgment can be deadly ..... and this is especially true with respect to eternal matters!


We often look at the account of Nadab and Abihu with a sense of shock and disbelief. How could they have been so stupid .... so careless? How could they have done such a thing, especially considering the blessings and privileges which had been bestowed upon them! And, indeed, we should be shocked and upset over their attitudes and actions.

But, before we rush to judgment, and before we become too self-righteous in our condemnation, perhaps we should carefully examine ourselves! We, like they, are priests of the Lord God (Revelation 1:6), and as such have certain God-given privileges and responsibilities.

How are we presenting ourselves before our God? Are we overstepping our bounds? Are we presuming to know better than He what is or is not acceptable to Him? Are our spiritual senses dulled with the wine of worldliness to the point where we too are unable to discern between that which is holy and profane?

We must make sure that we are not walking about in a spiritual stupor, unable to determine God's true will for our lives. Salvation is for those who are alert and sober.

READ --- I Thessalonians 5:4-10.

By Al Maxey

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